Chatting with Michelle Cann
"A compelling, sparkling virtuoso” (Boston Music Intelligencer), pianist Michelle Cann made her orchestral debut at age fourteen and has since performed as a soloist with numerous orchestras including The Philadelphia Orchestra, The Cleveland Orchestra, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, and the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra.
A champion of the music of Florence Price, Michelle performed the New York City premiere of the composer’s Piano Concerto in One Movement with The Dream Unfinished Orchestra in July 2016 and the Philadelphia premiere with The Philadelphia Orchestra in February 2021, which the Philadelphia Inquirer called “exquisite.”
Ahead of her performance for the American Pianists Association on May 15, 2022, Michelle spoke with Lee Clifford about her musical education, Florence Price and her concert program:
A partial transcription of the conversation follows:
You have appeared on “From the Top” as both a young artist and as a host. How did it feel to be on the other bench and what is the significance of the program to you?
Well, it was very humbling for sure, especially remembering what it felt like to be that nervous, young 18 year old. At that time, I had never done such a high-profile interview, knowing it was going to be played everywhere!
The host at the time, Christopher O’Riley, was great, and he really helped make you comfortable. It was interesting listening back to that interview. I thought I did a good job. But I remember those emotions of doubt in the presentation of who I am.
Coming back in 2019 when I was doing some hosting, I was also very nervous [laughs]. I thought, “wait a second, nothing has changed—I’m also freaking out right now!” But it was on the other side: I’m the one presenting these questions, I should be helping these young kids that are very nervous be comfortable even though I’m nervous because there is a responsibility on my shoulders.
Of course, I now have a lot more experience speaking to the public, and I’ve also worked with students of all ages since I was 16 and started teaching on my own. So, I have that confidence of mentoring kids. What was really fun about this is that when I had these experiences with co-hosting, it felt very natural to me to talk with these kids and give them advice. It was inspiring for me to see the talent and see them at that point where I was at that time—the hopefulness and excitement for what the future will hold for their careers.
And now you are doing the same thing with your students with your teaching position at Curtis Institute of Music.
I read that you were introduced to Florence Price later in your life—how has that event changed your career?
Well to be short, I didn’t even know who she was until 2016. I remember that there were two kinds of emotions that came with that realization: one was, of course, the excitement of discovering this inspiring Black woman who was not only a great pianist but a great composer. I dug into her life story and her catalog of music, and it was daunting to learn everything that she accomplished.
But then after you do all that you say, “Well if she accomplished this much, and she was this talented, then why am I just now hearing about her?” And that was disappointing for me. I felt cheated.
When I was a little girl learning piano and then getting into professionally studying for my bachelor’s degree and getting to a world which for the first time I was surrounded by serious musicians, I thought about what that would have done for my confidence As they say, you feel like you are walking on the shoulders of these great people before you. I was looking for a Black female pianist or composer that represents this field that I am in, and I didn’t see anybody!
I have my sister, and I remember knowing a couple of names, but there were so few. And I wondered, “What does the future hold for me?” In 2005, I went to college and hardly anyone [like me] had made it in classical music. You feel like you are swimming in the ocean on your own. So, I have to admit, the significance of finding out about Florence Price in 2016 extends beyond her. I stared to find and continue to find so many inspiring Black female composers spanning throughout the 1900s and beyond. The music is phenomenal, and I see this treasure trove of history that I could have been exposed to but wasn’t. And I think I would have viewed things differently and had more confidence stepping into my bachelor’s.
I care about mentoring our youth. I want the next generation to have a different experience.
In your program for us on May 15 you are weaving works by Black female composers Florence Price and Margaret Bonds with Romantic-era composers. How did you work this out—what is the theme?
Well, I can tell you…if you know a little bit about Florence Price’s music then you may understand this; if you don’t know her music, when you hear some of her music you will understand. Florence Price’s biggest inspiration in the classical world was the Romantic era. You will hear in the first movement of her Sonata that I will perform so many references. What’s really unique about Romantic compositions are the harmonies and the melodies. We think about the lush harmonies and these beautiful melodies that people love. And that’s what she is doing.
Her harmonic progressions, her voice leading and again these beautiful melodies that are very reminiscent of folk songs have this very Romantic flavor to them. But the thing about her that is unique is that as much as you hear the Romanticism in her writing, it is constantly mixed with folk songs, spirituals, and Black American musical idioms. And that’s what I think makes her really stick out—it is interwoven and constantly back and forth.
That is what was inspiring to me: this clear love of Brahms and Chopin and Rachmaninoff and hearing what I love about these composers used in her writing. I just knew it made sense to do a program that had some of the big names right beside what she was doing. How she takes inspiration from great composers from the past and brings in the very distinct Black American flavor that is unique to her life.
So interesting! I’m really looking forward to hearing this program on May 15!
I’m excited to come! I’m getting toward the end of the season, and you are the last recital I’m doing with this repertoire. After enough performances of a program, you start to feel very comfortable in it, so I’m excited you are going to get the very seasoned version of this program [laughs]!
Fantastic! Michelle, I can’t wait to see you in May!
I look forward to seeing you then, take care!
Michelle Cann will perform at our Grand Encounters season finale May 15, 2022 at Indiana Landmarks. Get tickets!